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Confucian Tradition and Global Education

reviewed by Huey-li Li - December 12, 2007

coverTitle: Confucian Tradition and Global Education
Author(s): William Theodore de Bary
Publisher: Columbia University Press, New York
ISBN: 9629963043, Pages: 128, Year: 2005
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The primary contents of this book are three lectures by William Theodore de Bary, delivered at The Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2005 in honor of Tang Junyi, an influential Confucian scholar in the twentieth century. The central theme of de Barys lectures is Confucian humanism and global education. Echoing de Barys chosen theme, Cheung Chan Fais Tang Junyi and the Philosophy of General Education and Kwan Tze-wans The Over-dominance of English in Global Education are also included in this book.

In line with Amartya Sens (2004) argument that public reasoning is the essence of democracy, de Barys lectures affirm the contribution of Confucian tradition to liberal democracy in East Asia as well as the larger world community. Specifically, he identifies the Confucian values, i.e., cultivation of socially responsible personhood, the advocacy of reasoned discourse, the promotion of social cooperation, and the pursuit of public good as vital cultural resources for supporting modern liberal democracy. Recognizing Confucianism as an evolving process and not a static reality, de Bary, however, takes note of the historical and contemporary incongruity between Confucianism and undemocratic cultural and political practices in East Asia. To illustrate, in China, while Confucianism embraces humanistic learning for self-actualization, Confucian disciples used mastery of Confucian teaching for passing the civil service examination for public office rather than pursuing the public good. Instead of promoting democracy, Confucianism in Japan rendered critical support for the development of nationalism and subsequent imperialism during the late Meiji period (1890-1911). De Bary also points out that Lee Kuan Yews well-known efforts to promote traditional Confucian values in Singapore ironically resulted in reducing Confucianism to the service of a global hi-tech economy (p. 19).  

To redress the problems associated with the extreme competitive pressures of modern technologies, de Barys vision of global education is based on restoring humanistic learning in higher education. To de Bary, global education should purposely start with engaging younger generations in studying the classics within their local cultural traditions. Then, it is critical to extend to more than one culture other than ones own, so that there is always some point of triangulation and a multicultural perspective predominates over simplistic we/they, self/other, East/West comparison (p. 26). Above all, de Bary believes that developing multicultural perspectives should derive from and continue to address common core human concerns such as civility, humanity, and the common good. However, such common denominators of human civilizations do not necessarily include an easy removal of the linguistic barrier to studying the classics across cultural boundaries. In particular, as English has become the lingua franca of contemporary civilization, native languages in non-English speaking nations have become recessive. Consequently, non-native English speakers reading of the classics within their own traditions can be as challenging as reading the classics of other traditions.  

In view of the over-dominance of English, de Bary supports Kwan Tze-wans endorsing glocization as a counter balance to globalization by means of preserving native languages in higher education. In addition to recognizing continuing efforts to preserve local languages, de Bary calls attention to how the translations of Asian classics have successfully promoted cross-cultural dialogues and can continue to generate a mutual understanding of the common ground of human civilizations. He further concludes that globalization and glocization are mutually supportive and highlights the need to translate the classic texts into contemporary lingua franca so the classics can become part of the public discourse at both global and local levels.  

As discussed above, de Bary appears to render an unconditional endorsement of democracy and Confucian humanism. Like de Bary, Cheung Chan Fai also shows a strong commitment to re-introducing Tang Junyis Confucian educational perspectives concerning general education to todays higher education, which has been marked by overspecialization and over-commercialization. However, the efforts by de Bary and Cheung to rekindle Confucian humanism appear to be exclusive of a critical examination of the practical vitality of the classics in the global age. After all, reading the classics or the great books does not necessarily lead to a consequent actualization of great virtues. It is also doubtful that translating the classics across linguistic boundaries will definitely result in developing multicultural perspectives that generate worldwide support for democracy.

Nevertheless, concerned educators cannot overlook the fact that the global culture emerging from economic globalization has gradually eroded most local cultural traditions. At the same time, we have also witnessed unyielding grassroots efforts to preserve traditional cultures. As cultural transmission remains the cornerstone of the educational enterprise, a critical and inclusive re-examination of clashing cultural values is indeed a pressing educational task in the global age. Thus, our critical skepticism of the practical vitality of the classics should not paralyze any inclusive pedagogical efforts to first re-introduce the classics of the local tradition to formal education. Furthermore, restoration of the classics of local traditions can serve as the groundwork for undertaking an extensive inquiry into the classics of other cultural traditions, as suggested by de Bary, Cheung Chan Fai, and Kwan Tze-wan. To this end, Kwans efforts to address and redress the over-dominance of English are indeed timely and commendable.  

Kwan recognizes that the world community is in need of an international language, and he readily accepts English as the indispensable key to the global community. However, he points out that the over-dominance of English includes the danger of individual languages being self-estranged through an overemphasis on English at the cost of the mother tongue (p. 77). To salvage the endangered local languages, Kwan argues for treating English as optimized foreign language (OFL) and cautions against treating English as emulated native language (EFL) (pp. 83-4).  More specifically, treating English as OFL encourages non-native English speakers to adopt a parallel approach to optimize their acquisition of English as a second language and to pursue a solid education in their native tongues. In contrast, treating English as EFL inadvertently compels English learners to consider English as a more desirable native language while discouraging them from developing their linguistic skills in their native languages. To Kwan, treating English as EFL is a self-delusive approach to English education (p. 84). Beyond casting doubt on the effectiveness of current movements towards delivering of key courses in English, Kwan argues that humanities scholars proficiency in one single lingua franca is very often a sign of inadequacy, if not of impoverishment (p. 87). In recognition of the bipolarity in conceptual comparisons, he further endorses tri-lingualism and affirms the intellectual advantage of learning at least three languages.  

As summarized and discussed above, Confucian Tradition and Global Education does not present an in-depth and inclusive examination of the interrelations between Confucian tradition per se and the on-going global education movement, as suggested by the title. Instead, the book presents a simplistic yet straightforward proposal to incorporate the classics into the core curriculum of higher education. Clearly, the three authors of the book share a common concern about the emergence of a monolithic global culture that more or less has rendered the classics obsolete and has continuously marginalized non-Western cultural and linguistic traditions. In recognition of the authors common concern, I am inclined to characterize the three authors vision of global education as both multicultural and humanistic.  

However, the aims and methods of the aforementioned multicultural and humanistic global education remain unclear and unsettled. Reading the book compels me to question: Does such multicultural and humanistic global education aim at pursuing democracy, justice, and peace? Is trilingualism indispensable to the implementation of global education? Who will be the true beneficiary of trilingualism when acquisition and mastery of at least three languages commands immense time and educational funding? To a large extent, de Bary appears to suggest that multicultural and humanistic global education is the key to promoting global democracy. Yet, the classics, including the Confucian classics, historically did not facilitate the development and establishment of democracy. In fact, it should be noted that the establishment of democracy in the West historically did not prevent the spread of brutal imperialism and colonialism. Also, as trilingualism demands prolonged academic training, engaging younger generations in studying the classics beyond their cultural traditions may lead to an apprehension or even affirmation of cultural incommensurability.  

All in all, the book presents an intriguing curriculum proposal for global education without including an articulation of why and how the proposal should be and can be implemented. Nevertheless, in view of the global scope of global education, one certainly cannot expect the authors to present a definitive and final plan for determining the aims and methods of global education. Instead, readers should consider the intriguing proposal as an invitation to attend to more inclusive cross-cultural and cross-linguistic dialogues on global education.


Sen, A. (2004). What is the point of democracy? Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 57(3), 9-11.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 12, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14853, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 8:03:28 PM

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About the Author
  • Huey-li Li
    University of Akron
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    HUEY-LI LI is associate professor of educational foundations at the University of Akron.
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